When I hosted an #engchatuk focused on raising boys’ attainment in English a few weeks back, someone whose opinion I value hugely, tweeted me, and asked in far more polite terms than I could ever possibly hope to convey here, ‘why don’t you stop bangin’ on about how shite we English teachers are with boys and do some actual research into it?’
And so I am.
Today, I attended a day’s induction into the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) ‘Enquiring Schools’ programme. The NFER’s website, which you can access here, describes the Enquiring Schools programme as an initiative which encourages, ‘a fresh approach to teacher development and school improvement built around enquiry-based projects carried out by teachers in school.’ Bloody great.
The programme offers teachers coaching on how to conduct research in areas that they feel will benefit the students in their school. I applied for a place on the programme, citing boys’ attainment in English as my area of interest. People who are familiar with my blog, will know my concern with boys and English. A range of previous blog articles on boys, English, and school, can be accessed by clicking on the following links:
Balance for Boys- An enquiry into the English Curriculum
An Insight Into the Male Experience – Are we asking too much of our boys when we ask them to walk away from violence?
Dear PE Teachers- the role of PE teachers in raising attainment of boys in English.
Back to today. I began the day with my usual enthusiasm. A text I sent to @willett_gemma at the crack of dawn read, ‘Really can’t be arsed with today. I don’t want to talk to people.’ Turns out, I could be arsed to talk to people, because I did. And the reason I talked to people was because I was thoroughly impressed by them. Not only were my fellow ‘enquirers’-and the people leading the course- thoroughly nice people, but they also wanted to achieve valuable outcomes for students from an evidence-based standpoint. Marvellous.
I’ve never felt comfortable in an academic environment. I still, even to this day, after three (frankly, horrible) years at Exeter University, and four years teaching, feel like a fraud. I don’t speak proper, I’d rather talk about trainers than Game of Thrones, and I don’t think being nerdy is cool, not even in an ironic way. Such are the complexities of my egomania; at times I feel like I know more than anybody; at others I feel like I know nothing. I’m a fraud and everyone knows that if I had a spare hundred quid I’d spunk it on a pair of 90s (that’s Nike Air Max) rather than a box of highlighters and a teacher planner.
Because of all this, I thought that I’d stick out like a sore thumb today. Everyone’d know more than me and I’d be floundering. Turns out, I was wrong. People had the same apprehensions as I did, and people were frank in their willingness to discuss this fact. The course leaders were excellent in allowing us ‘enquirers’ the opportunity to voice our anxieties, ask questions, and just hammer things out amongst ourselves. Discussion was encouraged. And best of all, people didn’t roll their eyes, as they usually do, when I said things like, “Well actually, what the research says is…”
I was able to talk to three people today about my concerns regarding the impact of a female-centric English curriculum on the attainment of boys. And not one of them called me sexist. Better still, not one of them saw the mention of boys attainment as an opportunity to state that girls ‘have it far worse’. They spoke rationally to me and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
As far as the programme goes, the biggest strength of it, as far as I can garner at this early stage, is its honesty. It doesn’t purport to be something it’s not. It’s not about research; it’s about enquiry. ‘You are teachers who want to be better; not researchers who want to tell teachers how to be better’ was the gist of it. The programme is about helping real teachers conduct investigations into education under conditions that take into account the reality of being a teacher-and a student. Yes, one of us might well conduct a piece of research that has global impact. Maybe. But if not, who cares? So long as what we do improve our own ability to teach, and attempts to achieve valuable outcomes for our students, that’s enough.
So, what did I learn? Lots.
I learned that educational research is a tricky business. It’s very difficult to conduct ‘real-life’ research that is easily replicable in any number of different contexts: There are simply too many variables involved. But that’s okay. Accept that fact and move on; something is better than nothing. Any research is a springboard for further research. That is how we progress.
I learned that there are teachers out there who value evidence-based research as much as I do.
I also learned that what you originally set out to research can change dramatically over time for myriad reasons. As it currently stands, my research question runs thusly: ‘How does the use of a masculine-focused approach impact on boys’ attitudes towards English?’
I foresee a three-pronged approach:
- Public displays of praise and reward via the use of ‘league’ tables that award points based on progress and contribution to class discussion. To be started, completely afresh, each week to make everyone feel that they have a chance of finishing top.
- A change in the assessment system: students will also conduct, alongside essay based assessments, multiple choice tests on subject knowledge. This is to test the, largely anecdotal, evidence that suggests boys like to ‘be right or wrong’.
- CPD aimed at teachers which aims to explore different aspects of masculinity and ask how teachers can explore masculinity, and what it’s like to be man, just as often as they explore feminist perspectives.
I must also consider:
- What do I want to see at the end of the project?
- Exactly what is a ‘masculine-focused’ approach, and how do I implement it?
- How will I test the impact of this? Will I use questionnaires? Tests? Interviews? Observations?
- What will I measure? Atttitudes? Attainment? Engagement?
I’ve included all this, largely because I’m keen to see what people think. Am I talking bollocks? Because that is something I do. Do I need to change my focus? Are there flaws in my proposed areas for investigation?
Do let me know. Please. And thanks.
3 thoughts on “My first forays into Academic Research.”
Hey. This is an interesting approach and I applaud you for properly getting stuck into the research journey as a way to explore classroom enquiry. I hope you’ll take this in the spirit that it is intended, as I am not being a prick, but I think you should really do some reading into masculinities before you embark on this. If you start your research with a narrow and un-thought-out view of what masculinity and femininity are – anecdotal, as you say – you are likely to just find whatever you want to find, irrespective of whether it is there. Are you, for example, talking about sex or gender here? Is what you call masculine whatever you think boys and men ‘naturally’ tend towards? If you feel there is something distinct about a ‘masculine approach’, could it be used by a woman? If it could be, to what extent is it helpful to consider it as gendered anyway, rather than just a pedagogy? And if it couldn’t, to what extent are you even talking about a desire for ‘more masculine approaches’ – perhaps what you are actually arguing is for more men to be there, which is a valuable conversation but a different one?
If you perceive some approaches to be ‘feminine’ for example, you need to consider not just what they are, but what constitutes the apparent ‘femininity’ of them. Who decides, and on what grounds? Same for masculinity.
It is a valuable study to undertake if you are willing to think critically about masculinities and for the motivations behind you focusing on this rather than any other topic. Let’s chat.
All noted! Hopefully, I’ll answer some of your concerns in my next blog on this.
I would echo Jonny to some extent. Some more points to think about would be:
Write down any received wisdoms (yours, in education and possibly the pupils) in all this.
Do ou teach a mixed class? Actually even if you don’t, what are the safeguards? What will you do if it has a negative impact on some children?
Are you prepared to be wrong? When writing my masters thesis, my hypothesis was not proven entirely correct. The theory I thought explained devolution didn’t in the case of both Scotland and Wales. I ended up with a synthesis approach. While this is standard in other fields – in education we do have a lot of tablets of stone/word of god postering. People would rather dismiss the evidence than revise their ideas. This isn’t healthy. What are your safeguards? How are you going to avoid the obvious biases?
Lastly do you have a supervisor or mentor who is skilled enough to challenge you and suport you? That’s another factor I only just thought about. I was being challenged on my thinking constantly – ever meeting about my thesis, I had to do presentations where I was exposed to deliberately difficult and provocative questions so that I would know how to cope.